The XX Factor

If You Left the Workforce to Have Children, It’s Better to Say So in a Job Interview

There’s at least one scenario in which it’s advantageous to talk about your kids in a job interview.

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For women who step away from the workforce to have children, trying to return can come with anxieties. First and foremost: Do you ignore the résumé gap? Camouflage it with part-time or volunteer commitments? Pre-empt any questions by just telling the truth?

A straightforward explanation is not only the simplest option but also the best one, according to a study by two Vanderbilt Law School economists, which will be presented at the American Law and Economics Association Friday and published in the next issue of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. The authors recruited more than 3,000 participants to play the role of “potential employers” and choose between two equally qualified female candidates, both of whom had spent the last decade unemployed. When one candidate gave personal reasons to explain her re-entry into the workforce—her children were in school and no longer needed her at home, or her financial situation had changed in the aftermath of a divorce—participants were 30 to 40 percent more likely to “hire” her over a candidate who stayed silent about her circumstances. “The number of people who preferred the woman who explained her résumé gap was staggering,” one of the authors, Joni Hersch, told the New York Times. “I was shocked.”

The authors argue that their findings point toward a necessary structural change. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission currently discourages employers from asking about candidates’ family lives, warning, “Questions about marital status and number and ages of children are frequently used to discriminate against women and may violate Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act] if used to deny or limit employment opportunities.” Hersch and her co-author, Jennifer Shinall, believe that conversations about spouses and children should be considered as natural and appropriate to an interview as discussion of “athletic pursuits, travel, hobbies,” all of which can “help employers and applicants understand whether there is a fit with the workplace culture.” The EEOC, they say, should encourage “information sharing” about potential employees’ family needs—as it does between employers and applicants with disabilities, who are entitled to “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Right now, employers might worry that even asking about an employment gap is a ‘leading question’ ” and would be frowned upon under the EEOC guidelines, Shinall told me. Applicants, though not prohibited from volunteering information, pick up on the message that discussion of family is uniquely off-limits. Hersch and Shinall argue that breaking down this particular set of expectations could chip away at the stigma attached to the female-inflected work of childrearing. What’s more, it could push workplaces toward more progressive policies. “Some industries, such as law, have been particularly resistant to providing accommodation in terms of work-family balance and job flexibility,” says Shinall. “If there’s an increased flow of information at the interview stage, that lets employers know how many people need these accommodations to do their jobs well.” Research on the way inflexible workplaces penalize women—to whom the majority of childcare responsibilities still fall—confirms that companies would hear more of this message if employees considered the conversation less risky.

But women are often reticent for a reason. Some experts worry that Hersch and Shinall’s advice to the EEOC could backfire. Ofer Sharone, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the Times that he agreed with the new study’s recommendations in a narrow sense: For women with a résumé gap, offering an explanation is better than leaving an interviewer guessing. But in a broader sense, if employers were to treat family obligations as a standard line of inquiry for applicants of all genders, the results would probably “greatly exacerbate” discrimination against women.

“As a job applicant, no one wants to be the only applicant volunteering this information—there’s strength in numbers,” Shinall allowed. “We want to see the EEOC encourage lots of employers and employees to be having these conversations.” It’s easy to endorse her vision of a world in which job applicants can air their caretaking responsibilities, confident that they will receive “reasonable accommodation” rather than a discriminatory write-off in exchange. The question of how to get there—and of whether parents, and especially women, should hasten that day’s arrival by volunteering information—brings to mind the old conundrum about the chicken and the egg. Hersch and Shinall’s new study suggests at least a limited amount of sure footing on which women can proceed: When a résumé, rather than an employer, raises questions, speaking up is probably safer than silence.